Men Who Cheat: It's Not About Sex, But Appreciation

Google the words "marriage and affair" and you get more than 17 million variations on how to heal. That's because "fidelity in marriage"—which only gets about 3½ million hits—is a hard thing to come by these days. Some statistics say that roughly 50 percent of married men will cheat, and at least 81 percent won't admit to it even after a woman asks that searing question. It was watching these statistics play out in his practice that prompted family counselor, rabbi and best-selling author Gary Neuman to embark on a two-year study of 100 men who had sexual affairs and 100 men who were faithful. He shared his findings in the new book, "The Truth About Cheating: Why Men Stray and What You Can Do To Prevent It." Neuman spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jessica Ramirez. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: I think a woman ' s first instinct when seeing the cover of your book is, " Why do I have to prevent this? Why doesn ' t he just not cheat? "
Gary Neuman: There is clearly no blame on the woman if he's cheated. She's not responsible for stopping him. However, the fact that you're not responsible does not mean that you don't want to take an active role in your relationship to bring out the best in your husband, as he should for you. I've been a marriage counselor for more than 20 years now. I think [hearing] women who have had the overwhelming pain of being cheated on and the subsequent disaster for the kids definitely made me want to find out what they could do other than be victims. Was there something they could do to prevent this and create a mutually beneficial relationship? When I was on [the] "Oprah" show, I talked about 9/11 firefighters who had helped the wives of their fallen comrades and ended up having affairs with them. I think that [example] showed that a lot of men are essentially good people. They make mistakes, but that's not who they are. So a lot of women are married to men who are good but that does not mean they are not susceptible to ultimately cheating.

What did you find was the No. 1 reason men cheat?
I think most people ascribe to the theory that men cheat for sex. Women are being told that unless they are unbelievable sexy and have a Ph.D. in prostitution education then the husband is going to cheat. But when the results came in [from my study] only 8 percent of cheaters said that sexual dissatisfaction was a primary contributor [in cheating] and only 12 percent said the mistress was better looking or in better shape than their wives. It really started to show a completely different pattern than what most expect. In fact, the majority—48 percent—said that the cheating was about an emotional disconnection.

What was causing this emotional disconnection?
The No. 1reason was feeling underappreciated. It was a lack of thoughtful and kind gestures. What I found is that men are far more insecure than they let on, and they do want to please their wives and feel valued. They like to win and as long as they are winning with their wife then they stay in the game. It is feeling underappreciated and like they can't win—and maybe they do things that make it hard for her to appreciate him—that usually leads them into dangerous waters. Appreciation is what they first and foremost get from the mistress.

You said women make a mistake in thinking, "If I appreciate him, he'll never change." Why is that a mistake?
Women are always worried that if they are really nice to him, he will just take it in and not do anything. Well, men generally do want to give, and appreciation motivates them. If you appreciate your husband for the next week, and he asks what's going on, then it leads to a positive conversation where you can also share what you want. You're taking the lead and modeling the behavior that you desire in your spouse.

This relationship between "appreciation" and a man's need to "win"—how does that play out in the home?
Just watch your husband view a ballgame. You would imagine from the way he's yelling that he has part ownership in the team he's cheering for. That's because men have been trained since they were little that winning and accomplishing is much of their definition. So they will watch a game to the bitter end if they [or their team] can stay in it. [In the home,] for example, if the husband makes breakfast and burns it, he still feels like he made a gesture. But if those sorts of gestures are met with what he did wrong instead of what he tried to do right, then that becomes, "I can't win."

What sort of behavior will a man exhibit if this leads him to start thinking of cheating?
The No. 1 sign is more time being spent away from home. The No. 2 sign was less sex, and the No. 3 sign was avoidance of your contact, like cell-phone calls. What these things are saying is that a man is emotionally and sexually moving away from a spouse.

How should a wife address this?
When you see these things happening bring it up in a positive way. Ask him, "Do you remember when we were dating? I want to get back to that. I don't want to wait until the kids are in college. I want to have some fun." This is all about empowering women. There are a lot of marriage books out there that give you a hundred things to do. They're all pretty good if you have time to do all hundred. I'm suggesting that you look at the signs that are going to mean the most and then do something about them. Don't do what so many of us do, which is hold our breath and hope [the problem] goes away.

What can couples do to get a relationship back on track and sustain it?
I talk about having four 45-minute periods of uninterrupted time a week where both turn off their CrackBerrys and they just spend time alone talking or playing board games or reading. They should also have one night a week where they do date night. It should be the same night every week, so get a babysitter ahead of time, and do not talk about three things—money, business or the kids. Everybody always says, "Well, then what are we going to talk about?" I say, "I don't know, but I promise that when you were falling in love you weren't constantly talking about the stresses of money, business and kids. If you did, you would not have gotten married. It's not what got you here, and it is not what is going to sustain you." I also suggest something that bothers a lot of women and that's locking your door at night. I'm talking about after the kids are settled in, and it's not necessarily to have more sex. The idea is just to say there is a space for your marriage that does not include everybody else.

According to your study, there's a 93 percent chance that if your husband's cheated he won't just admit it. What does a woman do if she thinks he already has?
No. 1 is talk about it. When women approach their husband with this issue then there's already a problem even if he's not cheating. When he says, "no way" or "what are you, crazy?" a lot of times the conversation ends there. That's remarkable to me because that's the last thing that should happen. The conversation should continue to where she says, "Listen, maybe you're cheating on me or maybe you're telling me the truth, but the fact that I'm asking you this means we are way out of sync. What are we going to do now to get back into sync?" No. 2, if you really think he is cheating—and he won't admit to it—then you should look at his cell-phone records or his e-mail. The next thing going up the ladder is a GPS magnet that you can place on his car to see if he's being honest about where he's been. Another option is hiring [a private] investigator or asking him to take a lie-detector test.

There are also men—12 percent of those you surveyed—who will cheat no matter what. How can a wife tell if he's worth trusting again?
If you have a husband who does not show remorse, is not willing to be completely transparent moving forward and is not truly apologetic for what he has already done, then I don't see how a woman could entrust her vulnerability to that man again.

Have the marital problems you've mentioned in your book always been this bad? Or is sustaining a marriage just more difficult now?
I think [marital problems] have gotten significantly worst because of technology. We had difficulty finding space to be with our spouses before and now in the age of text-messaging, BlackBerrys and e-mail it has become impossible for some to truly have their spouse's focus for any extended period of time. Vacations are no longer about vacationing. At any moment you could have to respond to an e-mail and people make a mistake to say, "It's only five minutes." It's five minutes, but it has disturbed the whole flow of the relationship. We are never going to be able to microwave a relationship. It's something that requires time and energy. I don't think we're poorer communicators. I think it's basic. It's kindness and appreciation and gestures that really do mean a lot and that's where we need to be putting our focus.